Lobster in Area 28 (Part 2)
Story by Chief Charlie Dennis
The sad part of our story is that with the 50 traps we put out, we only got one small lobster that was undersized and we had to throw it back in. This went on for about two weeks, until one day, my friend Lawrence and I were out and the wind was picking up. I thought we’d better get out of the mainstream of the Bras d’Or Lakes. Lawrence was a non-swimmer and I could never get him to wear a life jacket. If he drowns, there goes me too, because I would try to save him.
In the Eskasoni area around Boom Island, just off Crane Cove, there’s a nice little cove in the McPhee Islands. It is always calm and you don’t have to worry about the wind. We took ourselves in there and, to our surprise, there were three boats there, French fishermen from French Cove. They were glad to see us, asking if we wanted some tea? Well, Lawrence loved tea and a cigarette, so he jumped right on their boat to have tea with them.
One of the fishermen asked “Oh Charlie, since you got the license how are you doing?” “Not too good” I answered, “we only got one little lobster in two weeks.” They laughed. There was a bit of controversy at the time over our Treaty rights and non-native fishermen were concerned we were going to fish all the lobster.
My buddy Lawrence didn’t care, all he wanted was a cup of tea. I had two lobster traps in the boat. Georgie Carter from St. Peter’s way asked me if these were the traps we were using. “Yeah, we paid five dollars a trap in Cheticamp. We got a real good deal.” I couldn’t understand why they burst out laughing.
George said, “Throw that trap over.” I was curious, so I threw it on the deck of their boat. He hauled a case of lobster that was floating on the side of their boat and opened it. Inside I saw huge lobsters, giants compared to what we caught. Georgie put one up to the ring in our trap where the lobster go in. He said, “How the (a word I can’t use here) can this lobster fit in here? It’s impossible. Somebody saw you coming and wanted to get rid of those traps. They are canner lobster traps. They have little rings where only small canners can fit in.” Never in my life did I feel so embarrassed! George said we shouldn’t feel bad, and that they were happy, “We don’t have to worry about the Mi’kmaq fishing!”
Their advice was that we should change to seven-inch rings and he guaranteed we would catch lobster. News spread like wild fire. “Don’t worry about the Mi’kmaq fishing, they don’t know where to put traps, what kind to use or what kind of bait. I went to the DFO office in Sydney where Aubrey MacKinnon was the area manager. As soon has I walked in, all the fisheries officers were smiling and looking at me real funny. Aubrey saw that and said, “Come into my office, Charlie.” I said, “I suppose you heard what happened.” “Hasn’t everybody?” This was a headline that didn’t get need to get into the Post!
Aubrey, who was a great friend of mine, said, “Come on down” (like The Price is Right). When we got down to the basement, there were over 200 traps there that had been seized from fishermen for different violations. They were ready to use. They had rope, buoys, everything except the bait! Aubrey said, “If you can get a truck and get these traps out of here by today, they are all yours. You don’t have to pay anything, but all we ask is that you use them in the Bras d’Or Lakes but not in the Atlantic.” Boy, we were excited! My stepfather, John T. Johnson had a one ton truck and we called and in half an hour he was there. It took three or four loads to get them all home.
Some of the traps were huge and the only thing we had going for us was our aluminum boat. I remember putting out 200 traps in a couple of days. The excitement came when it was time to check them. Lawrence hauled the first five traps and that was it for him that day. He had to sit down and have a cigarette. We were in excellent shape, but Lawrence was in worse shape than I was, so the next 195 traps I hauled by hand. As long as you caught lobster you didn’t care, you could haul 300!
We learned from talking to old fishermen where to put traps, and how to use the map and compass. You look at the map to see if there are any rock ledges or piles of rocks, as this is where lobster gather. Some of the younger fishermen told us to use cod heads as bait. They lasted longer but the lobster are wise. If they see a cod looking at them in the face when they approach a trap, there is no way that lobster is going in there. So I said to Lawrence, “Let’s stop using heads and use the bottom parts and make it nice and bloody!” Sure enough, the next day we had more lobster than ever. I think the most we got during a season was 900 pounds of lobster which was great as the markets were very high at that time.
Now, we had it all figured out and pretty soon our traps were spread out, moving ten a day, another ten the next day, so we were not fishing in just one area. One day I said to Lawrence, “What if we went across to Irish Vale?” We took about ten traps, baited them, and threw them in. A couple of days later I had forgotten these traps, but Lawrence said, “Didn’t we put ten traps here somewhere? So we started looking around and sure enough I saw a buoy that was our marker and in that first trap there were about eight gigantic lobster! We checked all the traps and there was about the same amount. We got about 80 lobster in those and, I mean, these lobster were over five pounds. We got a little too anxious and put more traps in and the next day we checked again and there was nothing in the traps. I guess they were the 80 that had kind of made themselves a home in that area.
Well, that ruined that idea, but lobster fishing in the Bras d’Or Lakes is what the old fishermen call very spotty. Eventually we got out of lobster fishing, and sold our lobster license to someone from Iona for $5000. The next day a retired RCMP officer approached us, offering to pay $10,000 for our license. I just looked at him and said, “I am sorry, I sold it yesterday.” We lost out on $5,000 but we only paid $2,000 for the license so we did quite well plus we still had the gear and the aluminum skip.